Wednesday, November 15, 2017

S Triple XXX Durga More Potent than the Censored Sxxx Durga


(pre-censored time poster of SXXX Durga)

Sexy Durga is now officially S Durga. The posters of this exceptionally free movie (as in poetry written in free verse, here a film without a script, as the film director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan says, he could make a movie ‘right here and now, and about you.’) now are designed like this ‘Sxxx Durga’, perhaps a more potent and direct comment on the decision of the Indian Film Certification Board (aka Censor Board). How do you read it now? S triple X Durga. All over the world triple X stand for either rum or pornography. Hence, if the Censor Board was planning to avoid the word ‘sexy’ from the film’s title to purify the word ‘Durga’ of all the bad connotations which could have otherwise been imposed on it by the word ‘sexy’, now this Durga stands like an open invitation to wine and fornicate. Censorship could be counterproductive linguistically if not always in the box office. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan says that whether it is S Durga or Y (why) Dugra, it is always Sexy Durga in the public imagination for it has been branded as that. Anyway, when I look at it, the S stands more for Sanal Kumar than Sexy; hence, here is a film, Sanal’s Durga, which is purely a director’s movie, exactly the way his two previous films were (Oralppokkam and Ozhivu Divasathe Kali).

This Durga film has been in the news for wrong reasons and the latest being its ouster from the International Film Festival of India (IFFK) 2017 from the Indian Panorama section, along with another movie titled ‘Nude’. It is an irony that as Indians we have embraced all what have been American and liberal, and still an anachronism, in the name of culture we are still holding on to some done to death notions; a divine name should not be used out of context at all (read mythological context). Coming to the secular sphere, our politics also have taken a downswing, showing now tolerance for humour as the state directly involves in the performances of the stand up comedians and cartoonists. It would be an understatement to say that when the Jokers start ruling the world, the superheroes of the world simply are forced to go back to the pages of comic books or accommodate themselves in the format of 3D movies, which oddly get promoted as the most hilarious of superhero movies. Times have changed, brother.


(director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan)

Sanal’s Durga (or Sxxx Durga) starts with an extensive documentation of a local Kerala festival where Garudan Thookkam is performed. In Garudan Thookkam, male devotees are sent into a devotional frenzy then their body muscles are pierced with iron clips, then they are hung from certain appendage, and are taken for the town circumambulation, from the premises of the temple. There is also a ritual of fire walk. Like in other movies of the direction, the opening shots do not really function as the establishment shots as in the mainstream film parlance. They drag on and on to the point some of the audience negotiate their time of quitting. The quotidian unravelling of events in the beginning (like an off day picnic on the banks of a village stream and general ramblings in his An Off Day’s Game- Ozhivu Divasathe Kali and here the temple ritual), later at some point we understand are for creating a social fabric of order and conformity that would function as the logic of comprehension for the events that follow the rituals. The opening statement from Ramayana, speaks of a wanton woman Soorpanakha, sister of mighty Ravana, whose disfiguring perhaps triggers the abduction of Sita. The preamble is clear enough, woman, divine or profane is treated as a pawn in the hands of man and she is denied of her agencies; Soorpanakha is punished for expressing her love for a couple of handsome guys in the forest and Sita was abducted as a retaliatory act.

In the temple Goddess Durga is worshipped and the male devotees are ready to sacrifice their comforts of all kinds and are ready to push themselves to the zone of self torturing. But just out there, the story is different. The temple ritual starts in the day time where everything has a semblance of normality. By the time it turns dark, everything both in the divine and the secular realms changes their shape and character. Kabeer and his north Indian girl friend, Durga are in a nocturnal situation and for them it is not an adventure at all. Like in any other movies, as the protagonists are found in a situation (beyond logic), here too Kabeer and Durga find themselves in a situation; they want to go to the nearest railway station but the time is so odd and the location where they are is so desolate that they need a sort of hitchhiking. Two guys in a Maruti Omni (later on we see it transforming into a hell raisers chariot with a sinister look and eerie ambience) offer them a lift and they get into the car. Then the chase starts. Chase is perhaps not the right word because nobody is chasing them and the ones who chase the couple are very much with them inside the car. In fact the chase is outside the car; the chasers are us, the viewers and our fear and our irresistible desire to do good and save the couple. So we are the pursuers, moving towards the edge of the seats, our do gooders’ sorry asses.


(a still from the movie SXXX Durga)

I am not going into the story in details. Three times they get out of the car or rather they are dropped willingly by the occupants of the car. And each time, along the desolated highway, they find moral police ready to question them. Initially it was the real police at a checking point letting them go as the police understand them sympathetically as ‘lovers’. In the second situation they are literally caught by two gents (in their conspicuous white dhoti and shirt, and two wheeler. In Kerala they are called Pakal Manyanmaar- Day time gentlemen). Kabeer and Kannan are saved once again by the hooligans who come by that way. With no other way to turn, the couple get into the car once again. The freewheeling chat inside the car is eerily jovial but lingering around at the vicinities of an impending threat or a rape attempt. On the way, two more guys get into the car. The nameless four (as their names are irrelevant because in any part of our country, we could see them speaking different language but behaving exactly the same in a given situation) harass the couple in such way that it is a verbal stripping and raping; not of the girl alone but of the boy as well. At some point, Durga wants to pee urgently, and the four guys keep talking about peeing. One could imagine the kind of claustrophobia and shame that a girl would feel in such a situation. Each time, the guys hurt them with jocular banter, they repeat that they were not hurting them at all. After the fourth attempt to get out of the car and walk, they never reach the railway station. To make matters worse, we see trains passing by, showing that there is redemption, freedom and safety in the vicinity but there is no way to reach there.

The film has been talked about as something that shows the hypocrisy of Malayali morality. Of course there are a couple of incidents in the movie where we see it as a geographically specific movie. The ideological apparatuses of the state, police and family, are from Kerala, Kerala police and a Kerala family respectively. The police overlooks a possible abduction, harassment and a rape case and let the culprits go and secondly, the family (the middle class family that lives in house with multiple security facilities like gate, grill and door), the middle aged husband and wife who come out hearing the commotion on the road stand, stare and go back, and never intervene. The two intercuts where we see the temple rituals again, do not necessarily have direct connections with the narrative; in fact the story could be happening in a night, in any part of any country in the world where such apathy rules. And also the ritual could be happening in any village temple in any of the Indian states. Hence, Sanal’s Durga is an Indian movie (we should stop calling Pan Indian movie, Bollywood, Regional movie etc. If there is a relevant movie from any part of Indian, it is an Indian movie. Lucky we have a word like Bollywood so that we could discern sensibility and sense from what we call Bollywood capers.


(still from the film)

Sanal’s Durga is an Indian movie where mythologies of religion have become inextricably a part of the political process. In turn this blurring of boundaries has started becoming visible in the social life also. Social ethics seem to have given way to religious dictums and the politics swayed by such religious scriptures. However, when it comes to the social evils, no scripture seems to be withholding its bad elements within the legal systems. There is a free for all condition when the law is not looking. In the movie, the night is symbolic as evil could take place anywhere if the day’s light could be blinded and the pace of harassment could be accelerated and the victims could be captivated. The comparative fabric of ritualistic performativity becomes important in this context, the social evil could be sanctioned if it has ritualistic/religious consent and authorisation. In the temple ritual we see Durga is worshipped and the males are ready to supplicate before her. But out there in the road, a woman is not safe even when she is with her companion or spouse. There have been incidents such as these but the victims were saved only because they were not inside a pacing vehicle. But look at the reports from elsewhere in which we get to read about girls and women getting raped or harassed in the moving vehicles. In fact, as the director at one point says, the title of the movie could be anything but Durga becomes appropriate when she has the ritualistic sanction of being the annihilator of the evil. But she is absolutely helpless when she is on the road.


(produced Shajee Mathew of the Niv Art Movies receiving award from the CM of Kerala)

When Sanal’s Durga was presented in many film festivals abroad, it had been hailed as a thriller road movie. In many road movies we have seen the hero and the hero taking charge of themselves; it is their journey of initiation; it is also a coming of age type of narrative. They encounter rouges along the way but they save their skin at the nick of the time. They also meet benevolent guys living in cabins. Finally there is a sense of romance budding somewhere in the heat and dust of the roads. But Sanal’s Durga is absolutely different in all these counts. There is only fear and speed; only speed and fear in this movie. As one of the audience said after watching the movie that she thought the girl would be raped at some point, the narrative of the movie also helps surface the latent evil even in the secular viewer; the girl’s future (the couple’s future) is abstract; would they get raped as we leave the movie after eighty five minutes which is the duration of the movie. So we want a conclusion, and it is the eventual rape of the girl. Now in Sanal’s Durga, we are left without that conclusion; like a thorn that has left under the sole, pricking but not able to locate, the future of Durga haunts us. This film should have been a proud presentation of the New India but unfortunately we are living the same old feudal India where Durga is worshipped in the temple and pushed into bottomless pits of harassments on the road, which perhaps winds through our bedrooms and drawing rooms too. Niv Art Movies, a joint venture of Aruna and Mathew of Delhi has been investing in good experimental movies and it seems to be a rare collaboration between the producers and the director as ‘Durga’ is their third collaboration. I wish Sanal all the success in future too. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Bride or Bride’s Dress? Does Spectacular Display Make Ordinary Works Great?


(work by Ron Mueck)

Does a work of art need a particular ambience to be understood or enjoyed? As a curator, this has always been a pressing question whenever I get a body of works in hand. I believe a work of art when it is displayed on a wall or a floor, in a space or in any other interface of interactivity and projection, it should be treated like a bride and bridegroom on their wedding day. A work of art gains a special status, however mundane it looks, on the day of its display for the public to enjoy and the connoisseurs to assess its worth. Unlike the human beings, works of art get ‘married’ many times (some human beings too) as they are displayed in different locations and in different contexts. However, could a work of art always be seen in that festive mood? Is there a spot light always on it? Are there frames and defining contexts to bring it into focus? Are there discursive preambles so that it could be ‘read and understood’ in certain ways? What about those people who are absolutely new to those works of art which have a huge baggage of history and discourse on their shoulders? What happens to a work of art when it is extracted out of its exhibition context or display location and all discursive specificities? How does the mode of reception and appreciation change when it is seen printed on the page of a book or a newspaper, or in today’s context, when it is seen in the computer or smart phone screen as a self illuminated image?

(work by Ai Weiwei)

When it comes to the display of works of art, curators are seen in two different categories; one, the ones who insist that a work of art should be displayed as it is, and maximum one could allow is a spot light in order to highlight the tonal qualities of it. Two, the ones who insist that there should be a special zone created exclusively for that particular work of art so that it could be seen in isolation. In both the cases, there is a small shift or a minute aberration from the fundamental position of a gallery space, which has been evolved as a white cube space that underlines its provision of spatial neutrality. A white cube space does not give anything other than a white wall, a bare floor and a few lights for highlight. The evolution of a white cube is revolutionary and its gradually transformation as a special space is somehow ironic. Let’s see the evolution of it from the saloons and royal ball rooms where the works of art where crammed all over and each work was highlighted with gilded frames. Catching the attention of a viewer was really a challenge for a work of art, therefore for the creator of the work. The evolution of this space was basically a sort of decongestion to begin with, which in turn was imparting dignity not only to the work of art but also to the creator of it (artist). Slowly, this space became an exclusive space with ‘no value’ of its own. That means, a work of art which has been given exclusivity in this space could be viewed and assessed for its intrinsic values as it is not guided by anything extrinsic including any change in the wall colour. As time went on, the white cube space too became a conventional space liable to be questioned by the curators and artists as well. The idea of white cube was collapsed and the very spaces and structures started creating extrinsic values as we see in many galleries today by applying different colours on the walls, creating dark rooms, special light effects and even auditory and olfactory enhancement.


(work by Anish Kapoor)

It is hard to question the curatorial decisions to highlight a work of art. Of late artists have been dictating the terms of the ways in which their works are exhibited. There are some artists who make their display a bit complicated (though could be cracked by the curators) so that they could travel along with the works wherever they are exhibited. That means the curatorial task at times become a shared task, which could either start as a discussion in the artist’s studio before the curatorial venture starts or during the time of display itself. Slowly and steadily, the simple white cube display has become a drab and a bore. As curators, and during the good old market boom days, the imported exhibition designers as well, enhance the look of the work through additional appendage and structures, lighting and colour changes and so on, the exhibition viewers also have started looking for something spectacular inside the galleries. By this time, extravagant display has become a norm though most of the people really do not talk about the works of art as they are completely enamoured by the way the works are displayed. Going back to the marriage analogy, I would say, people see the fabric that the bride and groom wear on their nuptial day but never their qualities. Perhaps, people leave all those things to the bride and groom and to their fate. In the case of the art, people just do not worry about what happens to the art and the artist. This they leave to the fate of the artists and the buyers if there are any.


(work by Cornelia Parker)

I wouldn’t unilaterally question the curators and artists who have transgressed the norms of the white cube gallery and the ideology that drives the space. Nor do I completely embrace the spectacles that some artists and curators create only because they look different from a white cube space and for the time being conventions are broken and a revolutionary mode is brought in its place. But it is a great illusion exactly the same as the illusion that they create in their display modes. Years back, a young revolutionary curator displayed some works on the ceiling of a gallery. Today, except for the fact that we remember that a few works were displayed on the ceiling nobody remembers the works and their qualities. Whenever a spectacle is created in and around a gallery or a space where works of art are displayed, people take in the spectacle and leave the art behind. Who is responsible for this, artists or curators? In India no decision is taken alone by a curator; there is always an artistic interference or the gallery interference. I deliberately used the word interference than the word intervention. It is natural that the artists want their works to be displayed in a particular way to get the desired effect. And the curators also feel that their shows should be noticed for the novelty of display. But neither the artists nor the curators ask what happens once the show is done and the works are stripped off of their temporary glory and taken back to the studios or store rooms? Or in that case even to the drawing rooms of the art collectors.


(work by Subodh Gupta)

Does a work of art demand conditions of display? It is a very important question. I understand that there are artists who create works of art specifically for a location and the parameters of the display would change with the change in the location. A work of art created in a studio or a factor or a lab is not the same when it is brought in for the public display. But what happens to a work of art when it is not in the public display? Do the same conditions apply when it is displayed in the private collection of an art collector? Or when a work of art is taken from one place and exhibited in another space, even if it is a space neutral work, creation of a new ambience would change the reception of it? What happens to a work of art despite the change in location, when shown in the same ambience? Is there any particular law or dynamics that determine the ways of display? In my views, a work of art has an intrinsic logic and that is of its own visual quality or visuality. Whether it is exhibited in a white cube or in an enhanced space, what makes it stand out is its intrinsic visual quality. It is same for a painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance and so on. I am sure about the interactive works based on software as I have not dealt with as a curator so far (perhaps I am not interested). The intrinsic visuality of a work of art generates a dynamics that goads the curator to deal with it in a different way or a very normal way. Most of the works of art in fact do not demand more than a light and a place to sit. If given these basics, they would do wonders. That is why the great works of art, seen in the books or in digital interfaces still excite us as aesthetic objects. There are some works of art that demand a different approach; for example the blasted home by Cornelia Parker. It could exist only in that way. Duchamp’s Fountain on the other hand does not need any particular ambience; whichever way it is exhibited it remains the same.


(works by Rothko)

With the enhancement of price and at time with the inevitable invaluableness of a work of art, it gathers additional frames, bullet proof cases, security guards, surveillance camera and so on. That is the only way to tell the world that it is an invaluable work of art. The same could be shown on the bare walls of a white cube space with a normal spot light. Still it would command the same respect because it has been notified as invaluable. The same work could be printed on cheap paper, still it would be accepted as a great work of art. Consider, a work of art exhibited in a specially created space with lot of celebrity paraphernalia to go with it and by the time the exhibition is over people remember only who attended the do and how the ambience of the exhibition was. What happens to those works of art? These days, many curators and artists spend a lot of money to create unnecessary sets to exhibit their ordinary works. Eventually the works are forgotten, so are the artists. The power of a work of art remains in its visual quality and its moving power. Gandhiji did not dress up like Winston Churchill but the aesthetics of poverty that he created was so strong that the country moved as one whole mass as happened never before. Works of art exhibited in spectacular ways fall into the drain of oblivion and disappear. Take the grand works of Anish Kapoor, Subodh Gupta, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Ron Mueck, Christian Boltansky and Ai Weiwei or any other great names in the art scene. In my view, it is not the enhanced ambience that make their works great but the ambience of the works itself. Mueck’s sculptures are exhibited in bare galleries. Hirst’ works are in normal mundane spaces. Anish Kapoor’s works are at your face. Ai Weiwei denudes the space to place his works. But somehow some Indian artists and curators have absolutely gone wrong on this. They have misunderstood the power of aesthetics as the grandness of set designing or display design. For art, art is the only answer. No display could alleviate an ordinary work of art from the depths of ordinariness. That’s what happened recently to a few art shows in Mumbai. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Spectres of the Earth: Sudhir Patwardhan’s New Works

(Wounding and Tending by Sudhir Patwardhan)

As mutual haters we act
In a drama which has no audience
We play a game of freshly cooked words
With which we check how much
We could hurt each other
With pointed gazes we wound one another
In between, as if to hurt, he touches me
I forget all my promises
He becomes a wall, and myself a flower.
 (I, You, You, Me...Again, Chithira Kusuman)


On the second floor of Vadehra Art Gallery in New Delhi - a floor that often people miss without realising the abrupt ending of a visual narrative or the frayed edges of some experimental contemporary works - under the foggy white light two drawings titled ‘Couple Resting’ and ‘Wounding and Tending’ rest silently on the far end of the facing wall. These two works done in 2016 by Sudhir Patwardhan are a part of his solo show titled ‘Spectres’ currently on in the gallery. When I look at the works from a distance, I wonder whether the explicit nudity of the protagonists in those works could be the reason of them being tucked away in a sort of attic space of the gallery. Had it been me in charge of the exhibition, wouldn’t I have exhibited them right at the beginning? For me at least these two works hold the crux of what Patwardhan wants to say through the eighty odd works done during the last three years, now put together in the exhibition. But each curator has different views about a given set of works, hence I should say, the present display is one of the ways of seeing Patwardhan’s works. However, when I stand in stark silence, absolutely mesmerized by the truth of this particular work, ‘Wouding and Tending’ I remember the lines from a poem written by a young Malayali poet, Chithira Kusuman, which I have quoted above as a preamble to this reading of Patwardhan’s works. In the game that we call married life, there is a tremendous amount of wounding and tending; perhaps, finding the best tools of torture are invented in the establishment called marriage; underground porn is just a crass actualisation. What Patwardhan does in this drawing is subtle philosophising of this game called marriage; like an existentialist poem sung on a dark night only lit up by a single forty watt bulb.


(Sudhir Patwardhan -pic courtesy Indian Express)

The word spectre is inextricably connected with the history of Marxism therefore it has become a part of the cultural consciousness of the working class as well as the thinking middle class though both the parties have forgotten the use of the word and its context. They do not remember it deliberately because the spectres of pestilence, death, illness, poverty, lack of philosophy, lack of ideological anchor and the over abundance of blind faith are omnipresent. What is apparent is always treated lightly. So are the haunting spectres. Patwardhan, however is aware of the Marxian use of the word spectre (though he explains in one of his interviews-Indian Express- the word as a suggestion by the catalogue writer, but at the same time elaborates in his interview with a fellow artist included in the catalogue, he says how he was deeply influenced by Marxian as well as existential thoughts when he was a medical student in Pune); what had been haunting Europe by the end of the 19th century was the spectre of communism and the capitalist forces were really afraid of it and were doing all what they could do to exorcise it. However, apart from that connotation of Marxism, in the present show the spectre remains as the spectre of personal experiences, relationships and introspection. Even if the artist wants to put his own past to rest, it keeps coming back. As an artist, he does not have much to forget though he is in a constant process of remembering. A minor work (Demise, but major for me), once again displayed on the second floor is a part of the artist’s remembering of the past. Patwardhan acknowledges the fact that when he was a practicing doctor (a radiologist) he never used to see people as people but as bodies with illness or with possibilities of being healthy. Years later, today, they come back, the people who were thronging in various places, in hospital rooms, corridors, operation theatres, anatomy classes, railway stations, parks, market places, streets and so on and haunt the artist as spectres. They are about to do away with the existing structures of his ‘ego’ and rule over him and flood him with memories. And there is only one way to exorcise them; to paint them. Hence, we have Patwardhan presenting a series of portraits of unknown people. Perhaps only Mumbai based artists work a lot with people as their dominant imageries; from Jitish Kallat’s early works to Bose Krishnamachari’s Ghost Trans-memoir to Shilpa Gupta’s multimedia works Valay Shinde’s dotted works to what not. And in all these Patwardhan remains the pioneer with his early depiction of people from all the walks of life.


(Couple Resting by Patwardhan)

In Spectres we have a series of self portraits, very consciously done by the artist. But these self portraits (apparently he has connected them with the way in which Rembrandt had done his self portraits) can be seen only against the series of portraits that he has done of the unknown people. The portraits of people are not hagiographic celebrations; nor does the artist want to particularise their features so that they could be identified at some point. They are like drifting apparitions caught in the dream catcher’s net. Do the portraits of the artist, seen both as deliberate efforts on self portraiture and as part of the large scale paintings that narrate the drama of the private domain where the artist and his wife live, exactly represent the ‘portrait’ of the artist himself? If someone is looking for the very similitude of the artist, he/she is going to be disappointed. What we see here in the self portraits of the artist is a crumbling self of the artist. This is not the Sudhir Patwardhan who we know as ‘the’ Sudhir Patwardhan. It is someone else, who looks like the artist only because it is titled as self portrait. Here we need not think that the artist is incapable of ‘representing’ his physical appearance as it is; on the contrary, we need to understand how much self is there in a self portrait. The introspective aspect that I have mentioned earlier comes to play an important role in these self portraits. Though the catalogue writer and the artist himself speak of the ‘impossibility’ of self representation, I would like to see it as the actual possibility of self representation because self representation is not always about portraying the shell but the Self. And the shape of the self is not always known to the people who see but is perceivable only to the one who makes that seeing possible.


(Self portrait with Mirror by Patwardhan)

Here Patwardhan is the one who makes the seeing possible and he wants the people to see him the way he has represented himself. The more one looks at the self portraits of the artist the more one comes to know that the representation has something similar but many things unfamiliar. This familiarising the unfamiliar in the artist’s self is what a real self portrait does. Patwardhan is ruthlessly clinical here. He shortens his body, almost giving it a hunch and the face is distorted or swollen with some amount of cluelessness. The eyes in these portraits reflect the moment and their lack of knowledge about the future. His self portraits are the ghosts of the present times; they linger on and do not show the possibility of a tomorrow. The artist is destined to live with his own ghost in his homely interiors which doubles itself as his studio. In the catalogue I come across a mention about how the artist has become anchorless when he lost his personal space (as he shifted from a personal studio to a residence which is spacious enough to accommodate his studio needs). What has he lost his personal space to? He has lost it to the ever presence of his spouse. Or is it advisable to make such a drastic comment? But I believe that there are several authorised clues in the catalogue to make this view legitimate. The presence of the spouse if intrinsically represented in the suite of the five paintings that delineate the interiors of his home-studio. The presence is spectre like and it is never exorcised. The home, in Patwardhan’s view becomes a self revealing interface liable to open itself like an accordion or an origami structure and reveal everything including the bathroom, bedroom, drawing room and studio. There is something uncanny about seeing the Patwardhan couple in disparate positions (one clear and upfront and the other distant and ghostly) especially when we know that in real life they remain inseparable. While that inseparability is a physical proximity, the mental spaces have created their own islands and in those islands they remain solitary, looking for a ship to appear at the horizon.


(Another Day in the Old City by Patwardhan)

This existential mooring is palpable in two works namely ‘The Empty Book Shelf’ and ‘Scatter’. In the former work we see a lonely and silent man sitting in front of an empty book shelf. It is not only a shelf but also a self; it is an empty self. There is nothing more to read and understand. Or rather, whatever has been read and understood so far is gone forever. What remains is the sheer emptiness. The other work shows us a man falling before/from a book shelf scattering the books and toys all over. Even knowledge fails to hold (as centre fails to hold) and the outcome is a downfall and falling into a sort of infancy (in Shakespearean terms, sans tooth, sans eyes, sans taste and sans everything). Even the most mundane of the acts become Sisyphus like; like pouring milk or climbing into a high bed. Here the spectres become playful.

(Empty Book Shelf by Patwardhan)

There is something very pertinent about Patwardhan’s self portraits which I should have spoken of earlier. As one of the titles show, it is a sort of erasing of the presences and making everything into spirit like. What does he erase? Often this word is taken for self annihilation; but here Patwardhan does not make any erasure of himself though he re-invents himself as a much older person with no sense of competition and almost a willingness to accept defeat. He in fact erases the spectators. His brush is always placed on the skin that separates the painted image and the viewing space. Patwardhan gives a glassy feel about that surface; it is a transparent skin where the viewers have pressed their selves against. Patwardhan over paints them and erases the viewers’ presence. Come what may and whatever may be the critical views, the artist wants to portray what he wants. This is a counter expressionistic ploy; in Krichner we see the artist standing with brush as if the stiffness of the brush was his phallic strength. In those terms, Patwardhan’s brush is flaccid though it is pressed against the glassy surface. May be in a Freudian sense it is a tactic to eke out eros from the viewers themselves; a Yayati act, as elaborately put by A.Ramachandran and symbolically by Bhupen Khakkar. The expressionistic feel once again comes when we look at the interiors (which is almost cut open and displayed on a dissection table); it looks like the set of the Cabinet of Caligiri toned down for the present times though the scenes are not as murkier as in Caligiri.


(Scatter by Patwardhan)

Once a narrative painter, always a narrative painter? Could be. In the case of Patwardhan, his love for narrative painting comes to the forefront when he paints ‘Another Day in the Old City’. In this large painting, the city of Pune where the artist had spent his younger days is caught in its old glory. Perhaps, this is an artistic vision of the city, as in the case of a poet transforming a mundane place into a magical realist place. The city of Pune as it was known to him no longer remains the same; things have changed and have changed forever. Patwardhan does a portrait of the city as if he were trying to make a legible portrait of an old man posthumously from a dim photograph mostly vandalized by time and climate. While the spectre of the city gives him the right armatures to build upon, his love and memories for/of the city proves the attempt to be a successful one. And what we see in this painting is Patwardhan transforming into a narrative painter, who brings simultaneous actions at different locations on to the same pictorial plane as if the terraces, lattices, windows and balconies where separate frames of a narrative. Like in the Mughal miniatures, the actions are in vertical dynamics and are supposed to end in the horizon line which is either fading in to a jumble of buildings or into a river, though in fact the painting is done in horizontal format. The spectres of this show are going to haunt the viewer for a long time provided they see it repeatedly, the way they read a poem. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

What’s Sophisticated International Art for Indian Artists? Conflict of Methods and Materials



Several young artist friends ask me one interesting question. They come in different articulations but all of them express the same thing: Why Indian artists are not able to create finest of installations and extremely innovative works of art using unconventional works exactly the way the European and American artists do? There is always a second part to this question even if they don’t ask it, hence let me articulate it on behalf of them: Like them we too live in a globalized world, but we still lag a lot behind in the finesse of aesthetics, why is it so? One of the artists mentioned that perhaps India is still a ‘developing’ country hence we may need to wait till India turns fully ‘developed’. Here is a third question then: Consider India sooner than later becomes a developed country exactly and externally the way the European and American states look. Would we be able to make the kind of art that they are doing today? These questions are to be answered for dispelling the pall of inferiority complex that shadows the abilities of the Indian artists.



First of all we have to accept the fact that those people who suffer from this kind of self doubt and a sense of inferiority or wonder do so mainly because they consider the global/globalized experience as the ultimate equalling measurement and the kind of art that they practice is the ultimate form of sophisticated art. The primary need is the removal of this ceiling and this benchmark. Indian artists should re-think their approach towards the global art as if they were approaching a sort of aesthetical benchmark. Art of a country need not necessarily be standing in comparison with the art of any other country for the simple reason that the art, culture, language, food, social attitude, politics and so on are fundamentally different in each country despite the fact that they all are connected to the world economy in many ways similar. Even if the pattern of cultural consumption has become apparently similar (but not the same), the cultural production is not mutual reflective. The very global/globalized experience itself could differ drastically depending on the intellectual, physical, spiritual and materialistic conditions prevailing in one place. Now, finally, consider, any country becomes ‘developed’ according the Euro-American standards, still it wouldn’t be able to produce a so called global art except emulating the existing mainstream cultural or aesthetical trends.



Globalization or globalized experience of anything is a primarily a market ploy; a political-industrial-commercial nexus that works towards amassing profit by slightly enhancing the spending power of the people all over the world while making sure that this enhanced spending power mainly flows towards one direction, from individual pockets to the profiteers’ coffers. Globalization divides the society into three watertight compartments as it used to be in the feudal times; the upper class, the middle class and the lower class. The hierarchical relationship between these three classes is defined only by the market forces. While the global forces try to create a unified sensibility of the culture of consumption, most of the people in the world believe that they are invited to take part in the benefits of the global capitalism. Without realizing that the global capitalism’s main effort is to prepare the upper class to set the mood, the middle class to consume this mood and dispossess the lower class. The illusion created by the global capitalism always shows a refracting and distorting prism/mirror at the lower class making them believe that it is possible them to transcend the class and enter into the middle class by putting in a lot of human energy and labour in order to uphold the structures of globalization. This downward inculcation of aspiration is illusionary because the globalizing forces only care for the skilled middle class whose labour could be sucked up against a salary and the same salary could be re-directed to support the global capital and profit making. As the lower class is lower class by virtue of their lack of skill, all the unskilled and socially useless people, means people who do unproductive labour would be pushed further down almost into the vicinities of being ‘outclasses’ (another word for being absolutely dispossessed).

 The global cultural diversity is an antithesis to global capitalist uniformity. A unified global economic engine would never like to have culturally diversified societies. It would always like to have the kind of aesthetic desired by the artists from all over the world. Today, we see the Euro-American aesthetical establishments compete with each other to produce the ‘best’ possible global art and establish it as ‘the’ global art through various global art fairs, biennales and blockbuster shows. All these platforms are funded by the global capital leaders (in India you could see Skoda, Absolut, BMW and many such global brands investing in or promoting art and the kind of art comes to these platforms is always the art with a ‘global’ tag). It is logical and commonsensical to ask whether all the works of art produced by the artists from all over the world would get the same patronage from the global capital leaders or corporate establishments. Never, is the answer. These companies and patrons produce a global feel good factor about the art that are universally addressed and in turn address the universally identified issues and subjects. Whether it is Syrian Refugee Crisis, the debate over global terrorism, environmental issues and so on, all the globally discussed issues are addressed in the global art. This is an interesting change in the present time; even artists from the South East Asian regions who are not directly affected by any of these issues, share these ‘global’ issues in their works. That is not a wrong thing to happen. Here, in this process artists get universalised in their approach and addressing, but it kills the provincial and regional nature of art, almost erasing the provincial and regional issues unworthy of being addressed by (global) art.



The irony is that any kind of crisis addressed by the so called ‘global’ artists gets reduced into a sort of abstraction in discourse, which takes the aesthetical object not as an end of the artistic effort but as a reason to deal with another set of issues including global capital, global cultural and museum discourse, all meant to enhance the global economic moves. An artist who works from Kochi and addressing the Syrian Refugee crisis is soon sucked into this discourse and is slowly forced to do what is global in art but never what is art in the artist. Many a artist is forced to make a self positioning as a global artist while their efforts themselves ease them out of the provincial/regional responsibilities as artists who could also have addressed the very local issues. In this situation, two kinds of artists come into the aesthetical discourse of any country; artists who do art and artists who do global art. And we do not need heightened imagination to understand that prominence and recognition would always go to the artists who do the global art. These artists immediately find patronage within and without the country, sharing the same parlance, interest and targets. Today’s gallery circuits shamelessly accept these global networking efforts. The rest of the artists do not find immediate patronage mainly because their art are regional and the issues that they deal with are concrete and needs footnotes to understand. That means, the contemporary art that does not address the global issues remain regional contemporary art not the global contemporary art. To make matters worse, the regional contemporary artists are often seen as artists ridden still by existential angst. A global artist celebrates his existence without any prick of conscience (though his or her art is all about guilt and prick of conscience on behalf of the human race!) while the regional contemporary artist is in his/her perennial existential angst and is in the pursuit of finding individual solutions to the problems without the help of global economics.


The idea of sophistication of materials comes out at this juncture. Most of the global contemporary artists use very sophisticated materials including computer technology; many of the materials are even unheard of in the regions, even if they are heard of they are phenomenally expensive and no regional contemporary artists could afford to make work in art. Anybody who uses sophisticated materials could create very sophisticated looking art. Anybody uses conventional materials could create art look like absolutely old! That is the irony that rules the art world today. But I have another point to make here. Any artist who chooses his/her material with a reason; this reason could be lack of availability of financial means to get another medium. Or even if there is no lack or dearth of means, the choice is deliberate and therefore political. To put it in other words, choice of a medium underlines the stance of the artist. An artist chooses the medium with a particular purpose. When the creation of a work of art is no longer an innocent act to flaunt the individual creative dexterity of a person with an artistic bend of mind, the very making of art is the declaration of a particular stance on art, life and society, including politics. When an artist decides to make a work of art with clay or a piece of gold, he/she makes a stance on a series of socio-cultural and political values. This choice is decided by the circuit in which he is a part besides him being a part of the middle or upper class.


To sum up the arguments in this essay, I would say that an artist who for the sake of producing sophisticated art, pursuing sophisticated materials which are used liberally by the so called ‘global artists’ need not necessarily be making a global art because it all depends on what kind of an issue that is being addressed in the art. While at times the mode of art making would set up hither to unheard of fashions, one cannot pursue newer modes more than a body of works for the fear of being repetitive or the mode itself becoming stale by over use (examples are many before us). At times, the subject itself could elevate the artist and the newness of execution to the global scenario even if the materials used are crude and unsophisticated. Most of the artists become global by making extremely bold stance (like Ai Weiwei or Anish Kapoor) on issues. Some artists become global only because they are addressing global issues from the regions and they are sucked in by the global economic circuits maintained by the galleries. The desperate ones go after unconventional materials to create art; but sooner than later, in art the unconventional materials are going to become conventional. Global art is a capitalist ploy and it cannot stand without the support of the global capital. Even if the art produced within this stream are politically powerful, eventually by co-optation they are going to lose their cutting edge in the long run. Doing art with local materials can become a powerful tool to create global art because the regions are what holding the global discourse possible. African artists produce powerful contemporary works using locally available materials, addressing local issues and forms, but they become global artists. Global art, as we understand today is the fashion trends created in Paris and other parts of the world. They are just seasonal and become obsolete in three hundred and sixty five days; among them the lucky ones would make a re-appearance at regular intervals with minor changes here and there. But art is not supposed to be like that. Art has to hold up the eco-human values; art’s global nature should be measured by the amount of humanity and nature gone into its philosophy. While I stand for innovative and sophisticated art from the regions, I do not discount the fact that the conventional art is capable of creating a more powerful aesthetic discourse in the global platforms primarily addressing the regional and provincial issues. Perhaps, only such art would stand the test of the time as the rest would change according to seasons and the introduction of new materials and technology.   

(All images from net and sourced after Venice Biennale. For representational purpose only)